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Monday 31 July 2017

Band on a budget - the recording process part 11

Thank you to everyone who's been reading along, especially if you've been emphathising with the guitar tracking issues, so far it has been every bit as challenging as I was expecting.

Sadly however now it all slows down...

I'm back at work tomorrow, so from now on we'll be looking at occasional weekend time and snatched evenings here and there.
We are in a bit of a pause period anyway though, I have one more bit of recording to do (some organ sounds via my guitar pedal) and then it's tidying up the guitar parts and sending all the stems over to the guitarist for him to record his parts. All of which is pretty dull and mechanical really.
The interesting bit really starts again when we've pulled all that lot together, got some basic 'faders-up' mixes for everyone to listen to, and start thinking about how we want to produce the songs.

All of which will have to wait to for a bit, as, dear reader, will you.

Thanks for staying with me this far, I'll be updating again with each bit of progress along the way but it will be far more intermittent.

Because this is the internet, here's a picture of a cat:

Wednesday 26 July 2017

Band on a budget - the recording process part 10

Today was every bit as frustrating as I expected it to be.

It actually started out quite well, I fished the Tascam interface out of the garage along with some more mic stands and cables and set up a rig to try some alternative guitar mic positions.
This was messy...

but if it got me a decent guitar sound then I'd consider it worthwhile.

After further experimentation I ended up with a set up like this:
Two small diaphragm capacitor mics, one pointed around the 12th fret (but low down and pointing slightly up and in) and one pointing at the bottom half of the body behind the bridge (this one about horizontal).
Nothing really surprising there but I have made a couple of tweaks from previous occasions trying this, firstly I've brought the mics in a bit from 12" to about 8", and secondly I've used Omni capsules. This has given me the extra presence of close miking but using the omnis means that they're still capturing a broad swathe of the guitar sound.
Plus a DI from the pick up just in case.
Having tried it with strumming, picking, slappy type stuff and a bit of blues, this will now be my starting set-up for this guitar in this room in future.

And that's where the positive part of the day stopped.

Most of the rest of the afternoon was spent trying to nail the part for Northshoremen. This is quite a tricky part for me and, unlike vocals or some lead parts, it needs to flow all the way through the track. I tried recording the whole thing in one pass but after 7 or 8 tries decided a new strategy was required. So I worked through each section of the song in turn (overlapping the previous sections) until I had a reasonable take of the whole thing.
I have, however, ended up with 29 bloody takes! I'm going to need a spreadsheet to work out the best bits for sticking together.
Bloody horrible and sorting it out will be no more fun.

I rounded off the day trying to rerecord the acoustic parts for Building for the Flood - having listened to the existing parts again I decided I wasn't happy with them.
This went slightly better but as these two songs share very similar chords my fingertips were mush from the first half of the afternoon and I was struggling to fret things properly later on.
I think I have some workable takes though.

Tonight I'm going to head to the pub-quiz and then tomorrow I'll try and tackle Words - this promises to be just as much fun as Northshoremen...
I should really just write some songs I can actually play...

Tuesday 25 July 2017

Band on budget - the recording process part 9

Well, that's the vocals done. Pretty happy with what I've got over the last couple of days even if it has taken longer than I'd have liked. Not for technical reasons this time, just because I was knackered this morning and didn't get going 'til lunch time and because of the competition recording yesterday afternoon (which went quite well I think, and I now own a shiny new mic, see below:
We'll give that a spin at the next band practice methinks).

As for the actual vocal recording, that's largely been hassle free. Just a case of setting up to try and minimise room noise, getting the mics aligned to minimise phase issues and then setting levels. Very much stuff I've done before lots of times, the only difference being using the Art pre-amp to try and add a bit of colour - to be frank, I'm not sure it's made a great deal of difference but I'll have a more analytical listen later. There's certainly nothing I'm unhappy with there.

Next up is recording my acoustic guitar parts.
Arguably this should be pretty straightforward as well but there are a couple of complications:
1) a couple of the parts are quite complex, particularly Northshoremen, and
2) I've never really been happy with the recorded sound I've got to date.

So for the rest of this afternoon I'm going to experiment with some different mics and placements to see if I can get something better. I'm pretty certain I should be able to. I can't believe that it's an issue with the kit - no matter how budget my set up, I'm sure it's capable of what I'm looking for.

Right, enough prevaricating, let's crack on.

Monday 24 July 2017

Band on a budget - the recording process part 8

Today, I shall be mostly recording vocals...*

My view for the next few hours is largely going to look like this:
On the left is a subzero tube microphone, it's an AKG clone at a fraction of the price but I've been very happy with it since I bought it, especially on my vocals.
On the right is a classic lollipop ribbon mic made by Stew at Xaudia. I don't normally tend to double mic vocals for my more acoustic/folky stuff but the band tracks are a bit more rocky so I thought I'd experiment with something.
The ribbon mic is going into one of these:
This (the box on the top) is a little tube pre-amp and I've cranked it as high as I can to try and drive the tube a bit. On the louder sections it's just beginning to distort a bit and I'm hoping a bit of judicious mixing with the other mic will give things a bit of edge in places.
Of course I'm keeping any distortion in the analogue part of the chain, overall levels going into Reaper are peaking at around -10dB so there's plenty of headroom.

Both mics are about 12 inches from my mouth and angled down from roughly eye-height. This deals with any proximity effect from the valve mic (I have it set in cardioid as I slightly prefer the sound), stops any plosives bothering the ribbon mic (could get expensive) and also keeps the vocals from sounding to bright and nasal.

So far I've recorded the vocals for Shadowbones and Words and I'm now taking a bit of a break for some lunch.
I do have another recording date this afternoon as well, it's my recorded session for the JBL competition I entered a couple of months ago, so I might not do much more this afternoon so I can keep my voice fairly fresh.

That does mean the room is going to look like this for the next couple of days:
Which isn't hugely convenient, but is necessary.
For those of you who are new to this, you may be asking, as a friend of mine has, "what's with all the duvets?"
The answer is that it's basic, but effective**, acoustic treatment for the room. The duvets act as sound baffles and stop the microphones picking up unwanted reflected sounds. Basically, I just want the sound of the vocals, not the vocals plus the boxy-sounding room. This is a side-effect of putting the microphones a decent distance away from the source but it's worth the trade-off in my opinion.

What has become clear is that I'm going to have to do a lot more manipulation of the tracks on these mixes. With a lot of my stuff to date, the vocal lines haven't been hugely dynamic, and a bit of parallel compression and some automation has been enough to keep things in control.
That's not going to be the case with this set of tracks, I'll be doing a lot more multing and grouping of tracks to get things in shape.

Right, the timer has just pinged for lunch...

* If you're of a certain age and from the UK you will have read that line in a very specific accent.
** Sound On Sound magazine did a test a while back looking at different commercial absorbers and their benchmark as a duvet:

Wednesday 19 July 2017

Band on a budget - the recording process part 7

It's been a while since the last post as real life has got back in the way, as it usually does, but I now have a bit of time off so I'm hoping to make some progress over the next couple of weeks.

First off is listening back through what we've got, confirming the best takes and applying any fixes where we've got issues on the recording.
We've got a few pops and crackles in places that will take a bit of surgical correction but most of it doesn't look too bad (I think there's a function to do multiple simultaneous edits in Reaper - need to check how that works precisely) but there's one chunk that is concerning me a bit more. The best pass of Denmark Street has an extensive chunk of crackling on the bass line and I'm not sure we're going to be able to rescue it. I'll have a quick look at the other takes but I think the best solution is to re-record it. Fortunately we just DI'd the bass so this should be pretty straightforward.

Further lessons for next time: I mentioned previously that my note-taking hadn't been as comprehensive as I would have liked. Thing to do next time is just leave the mics open after a take and get everyone's opinion straightaway. That way, at the end of each take, I'd have comments like, "that was the best one" or "nope, I screwed that up in the middle" etc.

My mixing set-up
Like everything else in this little escapade my mixing set-up is also at the budget end of things, however I've been able to make a few tweaks along the way to speed up the process. From input to output the set-up is roughly like this:

Focusrite 8i6 interface - as well as the Tascam that we used for recording I have this focusrite permanently connected at home. It's a good little unit that allows me to put in overdubs and run separate outputs for headphones, my Yamaha THX10 (that I use for small-speaker-monitoring) and my main monitors.

DAW and template
Having recorded in Reaper it would be crazy to mix in anything else (not that I have anything else other than a really old CubaseSX) but here's where we get into the templates that I mentioned in an earlier post. My standard project template has 40 tracks set-up, 32 of these are set up as standard audio tracks and have ReaEQ and a focusrite compressor in the first two slots of the inserts. The other 8 are labelled as bus tracks for Vox, drums, bass, two guitars, candy, blank and the dummy master.
The candy one is for any little extra bits of ear-candy in a track, the blank one gets used either for extra instruments in band work or parallel compression if I'm doing more acoustic stuff.
I have the template set up like this so that I can use the couple of bits of hardware that you can see on the desk.
I also have the Sonarworks reference 3 plugin on the master channel - this little bit of code is designed to take the measured frequency response of your headphones and then apply an EQ correction to make them as flat as possible.

The Behringer BCR2000 (bottom right with all the knobs) has been configured to work as a basic transport control and channel strip. By linking it to the ReaEQ and the compressor using midi commands I'm able to have hands on control of a 6-band EQ (frequency, gain and Q-factor for each band) and the compressor controls (threshold, ratio, attack, release, input and output gain). It also has a few other things set up: track mute and solo, track FX bypass, record prime, EQ bypass, compressor bypass, track volume and pan, master volume and pan, master FX bypass (for use when switching between headphones and speakers), master mono and the basic transport controls. For complex reasons this only works on the first 32 channels - hence the template.
The Korg nanocontrol (with the sliders, mid-right) then controls my 8 bus tracks. It's set up with volume, pan, mute, solo and track select for each bus track, plus a few more useful transport controls (the cycle button and marker set and steps being the most useful).
This took ages to set up but between them it gives me a much more tactile control and has speeded up my workflow considerably.

The output from the focusrite goes in three directions:
Headphones - I generally use a set of Beyerdynamic DT990 pros (the 250 ohm versions) which are driven just fine from the focusrite headphone socket.
Grot-box monitoring - I have my Yamaha THX10 guitar amp set up as a small-speaker monitor for checking how things will translate to things like portable speakers or radios.
Main monitoring - the main output goes to a Musical Fidelity E100 amplifier and from there to a set of Dynaudio Audience 50 speakers. This is Hi-Fi gear rather than studio gear so it can be a bit more flattering and bit less revealing that I'd like, but it is good kit and it's not the weakest link in the chain.

The room
Which brings my nicely to the room I mix in. It's a nice shape and size (13'x10'x8') but it has no acoustic treatment at all. I've never tried to measure it but I doubt it has particularly good properties in any aspect. Hence I do most of my mixing on headphones.

So there you go, that's what my world is going to look like for the next few days!

Saturday 1 July 2017

Band on a budget - the recording process part 5

End of stage 1

Well our two days of holiday and hall time are up and I've had a night to think about things so here's a few pros, cons and lessons learnt for next time.

Taking a couple of hours to work out where best to put the drums on a previous night was time well spent.
The hall only cost £50 between the four of us so even if I've made a complete pigs ear of things and we end up ditching all of it we're only down £12.50 each.
Everything worked. We had no dodgy cables, faulty kit (pops and crackles aside), dead batteries, not even a broken string.
We all had fun (despite my getting a bit stressed on a couple of occasions).
Taking the time to pack everything away properly at the end means that unloading and sorting the stuff when I got home was a very simple task.
Brief aside - the band is great at this; everyone pitches in and helps with everything, no-one is ever standing around twiddling their thumbs whilst there is stuff to be lugged or set up. Not all bands are like this - end aside.
I'm glad I never found a buyer for my little mixer - I'll be keeping that now.

I could have done with some inline supressors or pads. I did buy a couple of DI boxes last year but I was just thinking about live use at the time so the ones I bought, whilst very good, don't have pads.
It took me too long to try and come up with a solution for our bass player's monitor mix, and then it didn't work all the time.*
Everything took a bit longer than expected. Not a lot longer, but enough to mean that we've ended up with significantly less content that I'd hoped for.
Either my laptop isn't powerful enough, or it's not configured well enough, or I'm hitting transfer limits somewhere but it caused some real headaches and I'm still not sure that all the tracks are free from artefacts.

I'd set up templates for the tracks on Reaper, but that was based on my mixing template. I need to create a recording variant of that for next time.
Engineering and performing is difficult work, some stuff got missed along the way, primarily any note-taking. Having an extra person on the second day helped a lot (particularly as he got up to speed with the software (we were using cubase last time)) but there's still things that I could have done better if I only had one hat on. I need to factor in more time for this.
Only get out the stuff you need at the time. At the start of day 1 I spent some time setting up my usual amp and pedal rig which then proceeded to get under my feet and cause a ground loop and got taken away a couple of hours later, unused. It didn't get used until the afternoon of day 2.
Don't get too stressed. As song-writer, singer, rhythm guitarist and recording engineer I felt that I had a lot going on and at times I let myself get too stressed. Had I been more relaxed I think we could have had a better session, I could have come up with a monitor-mix solution for the bass player for example. I hope I'll know better next time.

Next steps
First thing is to work through all the tracks and check that I've got all the best takes marked up and we're consistent across the whole mix. Then there's a big piece of work to go through and check all the tracks for pops and crackles, line up the timings of the tracks hit by the latency and generally get things into something resembling a fit state for mixing.
Once that's done I need to record my missing parts and then send some stems to the guitarist for him to add his bits.
Then we'll do a faders-up mix and see if everyone's happy with what we've got and what kind of production approach we want to take.

Since I've started on this, I'll keep blogging throughout the process, but on Monday real life starts again so updates will become much more sporadic.

* I have now figured out a solution that would have worked just fine. Which is rather irritating.

Band on a budget - the recording process part 4

Well that's day 2 finished. I didn't blog last night because I was knackered and went for a beer, but here's the brain dump from day 2.

The plan
We intended to record the drums and bass for the remaining two songs, then do overdubs for main vocals, rhythm guitar and possibly backing vocals. When our guitarist returned we would then overdub his guitar parts.
Plans schmans....

Denmark Street
After resetting up the few bits and bobs we took home overnight we were ready to go. We were joined yesterday by a friend of mine who's helped us out before to help press buttons and twiddle knobs. He's not an audio engineer but he has done a fair bit of live light and sound stuff in his past and helped out when we did our acoustic recording a while back.
Unfortunately we ran into some problems early on that took a while to sort out.
Denmark Street is the most rocky / punky of the four tracks we'd planned to record and as a result our drummer was playing louder than he did the day before. This caused two problems, one was that a couple of the drum mics were peaking, the other was that our bassist was struggling to hear herself.
Unfortunately I don't own any pads or in-line attenuators. Having never recorded live drums before this has never been a problem, I shall know better next time.
Anyway, as it was the overheads that were clipping the solution was simply to move them higher up. This brought them nicely down to the level of the knee mic and snare but the kit was running hotter than I would have liked.
I'm not sure if Reaper has a way of attenuating incoming signals for such an eventuality but I didn't have time to trawl the manual (which I've never found particularly easy to use) so we've just had to run with it. I'm going to slap a true peak meter on once I've loaded them onto my main computer and see what we've got to deal with.
Anyway, key lesson (other then having some attenuators) is to understand your DAW software completely. Homework for me there.

All about the bass
The second problem was a bit trickier. Our bass player has a long history of playing live in some fairly big venues which means we have a great bass player, but sadly her hearing is no longer what it should be. Our headphones were running off the headphone socket on the Tascam, monitoring the incoming signal and it just wasn't loud enough for her compared to the drums. Unfortunately just cranking the bass signal wasn't an option as it was already running hotter than I would have liked so I had to get my thinking cap on. Sticking a compressor pedal in the way helped a bit but still wasn't cutting the mustard. Which is a peculiar expression if you think about it.

Pops and crackles part 2
I had a lousy night's sleep on Thursday night because I was still trying to engineer the session in my head, but one of the things I had been thinking about was the issues with buffer sizes and artefacts and how that was affecting the limited overdubs we'd done. Whilst pondering on this it occurred to me that, although I had done the obvious things like setting the laptop to high power; switching off the wifi; setting the quiet hours; etc, I hadn't turned off the anti-virus.
I had also been thinking that there must be a way to make use of the other outputs from the back of the Tascam (we were only using 1&2 to listen to the stereo mix) and the little behringer mixer I had kicking around to create a separate headphone mix.
I'd turned the anti-virus off first thing and sure enough this meant we could bring the buffer down to 256 samples without creating pops and crackles - and this in turn meant that the latency was brought down to something that wasn't causing problems.
So rigged up the small mixer to take a mix signal into one pair of channels and the bass signal (routed in Reaper to outputs 3&4) to another channel so that we could give our bassist the ability to add her own signal on top of the mix.
I may have declared that I was a genius at this point.
Except now we weren't getting sound from anything at all.
And it was lunchtime.
Bollox, time for a break.

Back to bassics
A short walk, a bite to eat, fresh air and coffee can do wonders.
A quick check of the audio device properties indicated that, somehow, I'd been running the whole show do far without using the correct asio driver. Fixing that gave us our output back and our independent bass output, which in turn gave us a happy bass player and, finally, a decent couple of takes of Denmark Street.

Revert to plan A.
Having been cheered up by this solution and finally making some progress we had a bit of pause to restock. We were expecting our guitarist back any time now but no-one had heard from him so we weren't sure when exactly. We were still debating what to do next (backing vocals, guitar overdubs or get started on track 4) when he arrived, effectively ending the discussion.
With all four of us there, and a friend to push the buttons, we gave him a few minutes to get settles then went straight into recording Shadowbones.

Of wins and losses
Sadly adding another three inputs was just enough to tip the balance back to causing pops and crackles again. Pushing the buffer up to 512 samples sorted the noise but meant the latency was too great for our bass player's separate headphone mix solution to work properly. Shadowbones being a quieter song we were able to return to our previous approach but it's still bugging me that I couldn't make this work.
On the positive side we were obviously hitting our stride on the musical side of things. I'd been worried about this track as it has a few stops and complications to the arrangement (including three different tempos) but as it happened we got it down in three takes.
This, of course, just emphasised how frustrating it was that we hadn't had the guitarist in place for the full session.

Next up was filling in the main guitar parts for the previous three tracks. Denmark Street went fairly smoothly, Northshoremen a bit less so. Our guitarist hadn't had a lot of sleep on Thursday night and wasn't feeling at his best, he really wasn't happy with his playing and didn't think it was going to get any better. It really didn't sound bad to the rest of us but plainly a replan was required.

Time for plan C, or maybe D
It was now around 4pm. Whilst we could make noise at the hall until 10 there were already a few signs of fatigue (and boredom) setting in and none of us wanted to go that late so it was time for another band meeting.
The outcome of which was that since a) the guitarist was confident he could record his own parts at his place, b) I could record my bits at mine, and c) we could do the backing vocals in an evening session back at the hall one night, we should make the most of the set-up and record a fifth song.
For no good reason this really stressed me out for a bit.
I've been fairly stressed all week about this, not in a bad way really, just in an anxious-that-it-go-well kind of way but the sudden change of plan made me really quite tense.
I can't remember exactly what I did but I think I disappeared to check some cabling or something similar whilst I rejected any reasons not to make the most of the situation. After all, we already had a load of stuff in the bag, it wasn't costing us a lot of money, why not?

5 for the price of 4
Everything was already set up from recording Shadowbones so a quick bit of work brought up a blank template on Reaper and we were good to go. Fortunately the extra track that we chose to do was the one I would have chosen if it had been all down to me so I relaxed a bit and, after a couple of false starts (not all mine!), we had three decent takes of Words in the bag.

Finishing up
This is already a long entry so I'll put a bit of a summary in the next post once I've had chance to have a proper listen to everything.
But just for fun, here's a little clip of our guitarist getting into the groove...